How did Indian cricket react after the abrupt resignation of Greg Chappell, the elegant Aussie batsman and the famously opinionated coach with a king-sized ego who failed? They went to Gary Kirsten, the reticent South African with an ugly batting style and no coaching experience. After Chappell’s restless radicalism — in the late Peter Roebuck’s words — Indian cricket wanted peace, a gush of cold water on their burnt fingers.
Sachin Tendulkar, in his first meeting with the new coach, had made a very humane request: “Gary, I want you to be my friend.” Still recovering from the insecurity epidemic of the Chappell era, the Indian dressing room longed for a warm hug.
Kirsten knew that, he was prepared. He brought along with him his affable friend Paddy Upton, whose detailed CV can easily pass off as a short story. A fitness trainer with a PhD in sports science, a lifelong student of philosophy and spirituality, leadership coach, mind guru, passionate surfer; while a social worker, Upton was almost stabbed while reforming Cape Town’s street kids and backpacked without shoes for six months while discovering Southeast Asia by himself. By the time he left India, after almost three years, he would also be a World Cup winner. He would find mention in the credits that rolled after that magical April 2, 2011 at Wankhede: Innovative thinking — Paddy Upton.
At first glance, with his taut frame and yogic gaze (see cover), Upton could easily pass off as one those Indophiles who seek salvation in Rishikesh or don maroon Osho gowns at Koregaon Park, Pune. But his looks are deceptive. Very early in The Barefoot Coach, Upton writes of himself and Kirsten. “A hillybilly from Cape Town (Gary) and a barefoot surfer from Houtbay (me). We had our work cut out for us!” Explaining the title of the book to The Indian Express, he says, “Barefoot means being down to earth and also, the book is an honest, honest commentary on lessons in life taken from cricket.”
It certainly was. International coaches with no top-grade playing experience have always struggled to explain their role or quantify their value addition to teams. If you were the team’s strategic leader coach — one of Upton’s designations with the Indian team — your Key Result Area was always disputed territory. John Buchanan, despite his success as Australia coach, was constantly reminded of his 34 first class games, or rather his zero international matches. For some in the English press, he was the “whacky professor”. Shane Warne kept it shorter — he preferred “d**khead”.
Indian cricketers are more discreet. Extra-sensitive to criticism and even advice from non-cricketers, they have a favourite put-down: “Kitna Test khela hai?” Upton, with a grand total of two first class games, would have heard but probably not understood it. While on the job, he needed to win the respect of the galacticos. As coach, he’s more Buchanan, less Warne. He propagates the holistic growth of cricketers, talking more about Malcolm Gladwell than Malcolm Marshall.
He writes that he knocked on every possible door to get better results for the teams he coached — India, South Africa, Rajasthan Royals and several other T20 franchise teams. He talked to neurophysiologists, psychology professors, historians, mythology experts, corporate heads, Holocaust survivors, world circumnavigators and everyday oddballs to understand the complex minds of elite cricketers. Going by the ideas pitched in the book, Upton clearly has a thing for self-help books: Winning!, Good to Great, Start with Why, Strength Finders, Discover your Strength… Upton’s library shelves have lots of strength. Plato and Socrates, too, get walk-on parts in the 377-page hardback. And what’s a motivational mentor without a laboured acronym? So he coined T.E.A.M: T stands for Team and E for Excellent Entertainers. While Buchanan often quoted Sun Tzu in team meetings, Upton too leaned on war references. He related India’s military history to cricket results:
Fact: Modern India has never been an aggressor in a war. It has never been the first to strike.
Inference: India rarely takes the lead in a series.
Fact: As in 1971, once attacked, India excels at fighting back.
Inference: Indian cricketers play well with their backs to the wall.
Fact: Indira Gandhi handed almost all military gains to Pakistan.
Inference: India is known to hand back the advantage on the cricket field.
Like Buchanan, Upton too juggled apples and oranges, or grenades and cricket balls.
Over-stretched correlations, detailed feedback forms, long inspirational talks and “know the inner you” exercises were important props in Upton’s office bag. Players from the Kirsten era, the kind who in their spare time don’t do crosswords or read, would often say that Upton, at times, got boring. Ask the coach if his players saw Buchanan in him and he says, “No one has told me that, they might be speaking behind my back.”
MS Dhoni wasn’t one of the back-biters. In the book, Upton recalls a meeting day. “MS Dhoni, who was captain of the one-day side, came to me, put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘Upton, don’t feel that you always have to say something.’ It was subtly put, but it hit me straight in the ego.” It’s these small nuggets that light up the book. While he might have put off the team’s hillybillies, Upton had remarkable success with Rahul Dravid and Gautam Gambhir — India’s thinking and over-thinking cricketers.
Upton says Gambhir was “riddled with insecurities, doubts and vulnerabilities… the most negative person I’d ever worked with.” Neat tweet for this poll season, but the coach follows up with, “He was undoubtedly one of the best and most determined and successful players.” Upton asked Gambhir to make his peace with his frustrations. “Once those feelings were acknowledged we’d say. ‘Okay, so what do you need to do to get even better?’”
A classic backroom boy, Upton was the glue that bonded the team. The Class of 2011 had bonhomie that was missing in the 2007 World Cup batch, which had Chappell as the strict headmaster. Kirsten remained the man in charge but Upton was the first responder, the firefighter who reacted much before the flames blazed. Upton had Kirsten’s back, was also his ears and eyes and even played his agony aunt.
After one depressing loss, Kirsten, in a rare show of emotion, snapped. The South Africans had an unwritten rule: never sermonise players in the dressing room, especially after a loss. Kirsten had enough, he wanted to crack the whip. Upton intervened: “This is something you honestly believe the team needs to hear, or is this something you’re wanting to get off your chest?”
Kirsten agreed and said it was about him. “OK, say it to me (Upton told Gary) and he (Gary) vented out,” writes the coach. Two men outside the Indian dressing room in an animated conversation — one letting it go and the other encouraging him — must have been a funny sight. But the comic situation avoided a tragedy. A potential crisis, possibly a Chappell-Ganguly kind of episode, got nipped in the bud.
Upton’s looks are deceptive. Often, his role was overlooked. The ‘Barefoot Coach’ silently navigated the dressing room. He rarely made a sound but he made his presence felt.